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Saunders links labor rights, civil rights at Commitment March

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By Pete Levine ·

On the 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I have a dream” speech, another gathering was held both virtually and in person in Washington, D.C., last week to push for bold racial and economic changes.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders shared a video message at Friday’s Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks, highlighting the enduring connection between civil rights and labor rights. Just as the labor movement played a pivotal role in the gathering in Washington in 1963, it continues to play a prominent role in today’s national dialogue centered on racial reckoning.

“Exactly 57 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people gathered where you are standing today,” said Saunders, of the thousands of activists gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. “They had a list of demands – among them voting rights, fair housing and school desegregation … but also a higher minimum wage, massive investments in job training and an expanded Fair Labor Standards Act.”

Saunders pointed out that the March on Washington’s chief organizers in the early 1960s,  Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, were giants of the trade union movement, and that a common link uniting the civil rights movement and the labor movement was the underlying belief that racial justice can’t be achieved without economic justice.

While the Commitment March aims to spotlight the systemic racial injustice in our society, most recently brought to light by the deaths of George Floyd and others, it also has broader aims, seeking to advance a bold agenda related to voting and civic participation.

Saunders pointed out that the anger and energy stemming from the past several months’ demonstrations has deep roots.

“It’s about generations of underinvestment in communities of color. It’s about the systemic discrimination baked into so many of our institutions,” Saunders said. “It’s about disparities in health care, housing, education and so much more.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven once again how generations of inequities have disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx communities.

In addition to Martin Luther King III and others, the speakers at the Commitment March included The Rev. William J. Barber, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and voting-rights activist and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, all of whom recently addressed delegates at AFSCME’s 44th International Convention.

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